Reformers and hardliners

Neil Clark — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

IRAN's NEW president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is one. So are Belarus' Alexander Lukashenko and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. These men, we are repeatedly told by CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the London Financial Times, are "hardliners." But what exactly is a hardliner — and why are some world leaders hardliners and others not?

In a dictionary you will find hardline defined as "definite and unyielding." But if so, why is hardliner used so selectively to describe world leaders?

As Mr. Ahmadinejad celebrated his landslide victory, another election was taking place in Bulgaria. For the past four years Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha has presided over a privatisation programme that the Iron Lady herself would have drooled over. His neo-liberal agenda has left half of Bulgaria's eight million people surviving on less than two euros a day. Yet unlike Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr. Lukashenko or Mr. Chavez, the Bulgarian Premier has not been labelled a hardliner — for his "definite and unyielding" policies — but instead is referred to as a reformer and a moderniser.

It is a similar story across eastern and central Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, whose government is following the most aggressively neoliberal policies in the European Union, recently announced plans to privatise healthcare. Hungary has no more money for hospitals — but did find �7.7 million to buy air-to-air missiles from the U.S. and �34.5 million to "adapt" its armed forces to the demands of NATO and EU membership. To many, a policy of putting guns before health would be considered hardline. But not the Western media, who laud Mr. Gyurcsany as a "centrist reformer."

Look further and it is clear; if you run your country for the benefit of international capital and orientate your foreign policy towards the U.S., you will be a "reformer," "moderate" or "moderniser" — regardless of how extreme your polices are. The rule applies even if you served in an SS unit (like the neoconservatives' favourite Islamist, the late Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic) or, like the Shah of Iran, had one of the most feared secret police forces in the world.

If, on the other hand, you run your country for the benefit of your people and refuse to pay Danegeld to the most powerful empire the world has seen, you will be called a hardliner. Mr. Ahmadinejad is "hardline," not for the social and religious conservatism he shares with the non-"hardline" leaders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but for his policy of empowering Iranian working class people and defending his country's right to develop nuclear power.

Mr. Lukashenko is "hardline," not for his authoritarianism, but because he wishes to maintain the last planned, socially owned economy in Europe: an alternative economic agenda that has seen his country climb from 68th to 49th in the U.N. human development index.

And Mr. Chavez is "hardline," not because he once led a failed military coup, but because he wishes to use his nation's vast oil wealth to benefit Venezuela and not U.S. oil corporations.

It is for standing up for the interests of their own people that these three men are labelled "hardliners." For those genuinely concerned with social justice, derailing the U.S. behemoth and creating a world in which people come before profits, the more "hardliners" — and the less "moderates" and "reformers" — that are elected to power, the better.

(Neil Clark is a writer and broadcaster specialising in Eastern European and Middle Eastern affairs.)

Recommended for you